The Indian hockey team had beaten Pakistan 2-1 to clinch the bronze at the recent Asian Games in Jakarta. An hour after the match, the entire team along with the support staff took their places in the VIP stands to watch the final between Japan and Malaysia.
Senior midfielder and former skipper Sardar Singh pulled away from the lot and found a quiet corner away from the action. He walked up to the practice pitch on the other side and stared at the empty ground in silence. Moments later, he asked a volunteer for a cup of black coffee and sat there silently, as if reflecting on India’s performance at the Asian Games and on himself.
India, favourites to win the gold at the Asian Games, had fared poorly given their form and ranking and their loss to Malaysia in the semi-finals — and thus failing to earn a direct berth to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — had evoked a sharp reaction from Hockey India. The federation was livid and had warned coach Harendra Singh and some senior players.
We didn’t do justice to our ranking or capability: Sardar on Asian Games
Sardar knew he, too, was on the list, having endured a tough 2018. There were murmurs that Sardar could well have played his last international match in Jakarta on that day. And the veteran of 300 plus games was aware of it.
His “concentration” was broken when this correspondent approached him for an interview and Sardar offered his calm, composed self — much like he’s been all throughout his illustrious career. If there is a storm brewing inside, it has never reflected on Sardar’s face or in his words.
Sardar poured half of his steaming black coffee into another cup and said while offering it, “Acha nahi raha ye tournament humare liye, haina? (It wasn’t really a very good tournament for us, isn’t it?).”
He rued the fact that the team made silly errors in an important tournament and was now suffering because of their mistakes. Poor communication, lack of discipline on the field and poor execution was how he assessed India’s campaign at the Asian Games saying the team was much more capable of this.
“We didn’t do justice to our ranking or capability,” he said.
Asked about Hockey India’s reaction and talks of this being his swansong, Sardar chose to keep it all aside and said he was only focused on “performing well for the country”.
“I have always wanted to win medals for the country and take India ahead. I have played for long and have done decent but have never been able to win a medal at the Olympics or a World Cup,” is all he said.
Sardar is a legend and always will be one for me: Coach Harendra Singh
Retirement was not on his mind but the team management had decided otherwise. Sardar, they thought, had been given a long rope already and with the Asian Champions Trophy and the World Cup in mind, the officials decided to give a chance to the youngsters.
It is reliably learnt that on the team’s arrival in New Delhi after the Games, Sardar was told in clear terms that “his services were not needed”.
Said an official, “The team performed below par in Jakarta and we need answers. The coach, too, is under the scanner as also some senior players.”
“Sardar’s performance hasn’t been up to the mark not only in the Asian Games but also tournaments before that. There could be other heads rolling too. We have to look ahead and build the team.”
Sardar, it is understood, informed the authorities that he “would not be attending the camp” if he was not be picked in the final 18.
On Wednesday, Hockey India announced 25 probables for the national camp in Bhubaneswar from September 16 and the one name missing was that of Sardar.
High performance director David John, too, had told Scroll.in at the Asian Games that “there could be one or two changes” in the team for the World Cup.
It did not take Sardar long to announce his decision to “retire”. And while a final word is yet to be heard from the legend — Sardar will address a press conference on Thursday — the writing on the wall was clear.
Coach Harendra told Scroll.in, “If he has decided (on retirement), I will respect his decision. He is a legend and always will be one for me. He has done a huge service to Indian hockey and there is no one like him.”
2018: A tough year for Sardar
2018 has been a difficult year for Sardar. Questions were raised on his form and fitness and the man who had made hockey a synonym to his name was made to go back to the drawing board.
The major blow came at the Sultan Azlan Shah tournament earlier this year when Hockey India decided to send a second-string team with Sardar as its captain. Before his departure to Malaysia, it was indicated to him that it was his “final tournament”. India fared poorly at the Azlan Shah tournament and as expected, Sardar was dropped for the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast.
The fighter that he is, Sardar refused to give up. As the team left for Gold Coast, Sardar went back to the only thing he knew — fitness and hockey.
“Sab bolte the Sardar slow ho gaya hai (Everyone used to say Sardar has slowed down),” he said, before asking, “But when was my game fast? My game has always been on outfoxing the opponent and creating space in the midfield. I rely on peripheral vision and skills. Speed has never been my thing.”
But just to prove his detractors wrong, Sardar spent hours in the gym to build more stamina and speed. At the next camp. he cleared the yo-yo test — the measurement of a player’s speed and agility — with a superb 21.4. The minimum mark for each player is 18.
Sardar’s return to the Indian squad
The team’s disastrous show at the Commonwealth Games handed the 32-year-old Sardar another chance. And the senior pro lapped on it and made a return at the Champions Trophy in the Netherlands. India picked up a silver in the tournament losing to world No 1 Australia in the final on penalty shootout.
True, Sardar failed to create the magic of yesteryears at the Champions Trophy and the Asian Games but he wasn’t poor either. Age isn’t on his side but the experienced midfielder is a crafty player and absorbs pressure. His reading of the game is impeccable and he can still create terror in the hearts of the teams ranked below India.
Anyone who knows Sardar understands that the veteran was keen to play the World Cup in Bhubaneswar at home but with the federation deciding to look ahead, Sardar had to call it a day sooner than he would have wanted.
In a sport where retirements are rare — Viren Rasquinha was the only one in the last decade to make a formal announcement in 2006 — and farewells rarer, Sardar’s announcement has definitely come as a shock for the fraternity and has left the sport poorer.
The legend will be missed.